The discomfort of different beans (and other hazards of the West)

A work of short fiction from Astrid Munn.

by
Editor’s Note: Occasionally, Civic Nebraska Writers Group member Astrid Munn shares short fictional stories featuring Beatriz, a young Nebraskan who we first met as a university student [12]. The short story below returns the character to her youth. Reflection questions are at the bottom of this page.

Here’s your little spoon and your little napkin for your little eggs,” Pilar began in Spanish. She liked to add the diminutives -ito and -ita to everything to make it sound teensy and adorable.

“OK!” Beatriz said, ready to play along. “Now do -ota!”

“HERE IS YOUR GLASS-OTA FOR YOUR JUICE-OTA…”

Beatriz’s tummy ached from laughing. The thought of a “vasote,” or a giant, rude glass killed her. And “jugote”? Who knew orange juice could sound so vulgar! Pilar was good, if not magical, in the way she rendered things cute or gross with just a few syllables.

The mother and daughter heard a rap on the door. Beatriz’s guffaws trailed off as Pilar went to answer. It was Robin Little Wounds.

“Of course, you can ride to school with us!” Pilar exclaimed. She nudged the pudgy girl toward the kitchen table. “Beatriz is having eggs and toast. Would you like some? We have cereal, too.”

Beatriz ran through her mental list of cereals on hand. If Robin chose Crispix, Grape Nuts, or Kix, that was fine. But Cinnamon Toast Crunch was out of the question. That was Saturday morning cereal. Beatriz had a system.

“Can I just have some Oreos and milk?”

“That’s not part of a balanced breakfast, Robin.”

“Beatriz!” Pilar scolded. “Don’t police others. If Robin wants Oreos she can have Oreos.” She turned to Robin. “They’re in the breadbox, mija.”

Mija. Beatriz resented her mom calling this girl mija. Daughter. Beatriz also resented that everyone else – even the waitresses at Denny’s – got to police her appetite but she had to stay quiet as Robin dunked Oreos for breakfast.  

It was already 7:30. Beatriz gathered up her hair gear. Robin watched, mesmerized, as Pilar sank a heavy paddle brush deep into Beatriz’s scalp and dragged it through the third-grader’s poofy bedhead, gradually smoothing the mess into a pair of tight, shiny braids. Lice did not like braids.

“Pili?” Robin asked meekly. “Will you comb my hair? Please?”

Pilar peeled a nest of brown frizz from the brush and beckoned Robin over.

“Can’t your mom comb your hair?”

“Beatriz!” Pilar scolded again. “You know her mother works nights at Pac-Beef.” Her tone softened as she tenderly styled Robin’s auburn waves. “How’s your mother doing, anyway?”

“She’s not working right now. She’s got carpal tunnel. From cutting too much meat.”

Pilar shot a look as if to say, “See?” But Beatriz knew better. She had seen the finely mulleted and mustachioed Norteños coming and going at Robin’s. Something other than bad wrists had to be keeping Robin’s mom from cooking a hot breakfast or combing her hair or taking her kids to school on time.

“All done,” Pilar announced. Somehow, she managed to shape Robin’s bob into two little pigtails. Beatriz thought they were too short; comically short, really. But before she could say anything, Robin ran to the microwave to admire herself, patting the little nubs behind each ear. 

Beatriz’s father was a lanky white man. A white white-collar man not from the West. He was from Back East and had gone to school on a Coast. So it was much to his colleagues’ chagrin that he chose to live in the brown part of town, send Beatriz to the brown kid school, and cross a field of puncture vines on foot – lunchbox and thermos in tow – to reach his office suite. He walked so Pilar could have the car during the day. His colleagues hated all of that, too.

It was in the family’s little hatchback that Pilar zipped the girls to school. They passed a tight network of trailers and low-rise projects until they reached Sugar Beet Road.

“Something stinks,” Robin remarked, burying her freckled nose into her sweatshirt.

“My dad says it’s from the beets fermenting,” Beatriz explained, matter of factly.  “We had a warm winter.”

 Pilar briefly took her eyes off the road to study the crumbling pyramids of beets. A series of conveyor belts carried them toward the steaming, belching sugar factory that towered over the little town. The hard white clay that covered the valley was not particularly good for beets, but it was important to keep Cuba’s sugar out, even if the government had to pay farmers to farm the land. Maybe this was welfare, but it was better than Communist Sugar.

“Well, it’s making me sick,” Pilar said.

“That’s not how disease works, Mom.”

“If she doesn’t feel good, and it’s caused by the smell, then the smell is making her sick,” Robin reasoned. “What more do you need, Beatriz?”

Beatriz wanted to throw Leeuwenhoek and Pasteur in Robin’s face. But her mother had reprimanded her twice already this morning. So she stewed in the backseat until Pilar pulled up to the school.

“OK, girls! Have a happy day!”

“Thanks, Pili!” Robin cried cheerily. Beatriz grumbled a goodbye as she balanced her viola on one side and her briefcase on the other. Beatriz refused to wear a backpack.

“Lupe’s already in line,” Robin noted, peering across the soccer field. “I’m going to return her T.L.C. tape. She let me copy it.”

“Sure,” Beatriz said, startled that someone like Robin got along with someone popular like Lupe. On borrowing terms, even. And both were up on pop music. Beatriz – still futzing with her father’s shortwave radio and Pilar’s ABBA collection – wasn’t there yet. She deliberately hung back as Robin sped ahead to the kids waiting for the school doors to open.

“I like your briefcase,” a little voice said.

Beatriz turned around slowly with dread. The other kids in orchestra would sometimes get their older brothers to fake flirt with her, so she was wary of most compliments. But looking back at her through the chain link fence was another girl her age.

“Thanks,” Beatriz replied. “Are you new?”

“I don’t go to school here,” the girl said. “I live next door, but I go to Lake Lucy.”

Beatriz had never really noticed the house next to the schoolyard. Every other house on the block was magenta, aqua, or electric blue – much to the City’s chagrin – but this one was beige. And the yard was empty – no bathtub grotto or concrete deer in sight. The pretty girl swept her hair back; she wore it down. Lice must not have been a problem at Lake Lucy.

“But that’s way out in the country!” Beatriz pointed out. “Why would you do that?”

“It’s easier to get out of school,” the girl explained. “You know. Because everyone’s calving and hunting.”

Beatriz did not know. She studied the girl – her Bambi earrings, a hint of lip gloss, the white Chihuahua in her yard. She did not look like a cowgirl huntress.

“Are you calving and hunting?” she asked.

Just then, a slight man with slicked-back hair came out with a Caboodles in one hand and a child’s garment bag in the other. His shirt had a giant gold Medusa’s head on it. 

“Maruca!” the man called, piling the gear into a minivan. “You ready?”

“I gotta go,” the girl said. “I have a shoot.”

“A shoot?” Beatriz called out. “Like, turkeys?”

But Maruca had already skittered away.

Beatriz settled into her desk at the back of the classroom. Ever since the tests deemed her Gifted, teachers had seated her in the back. This was meant to give Beatriz space to do her own lessons, but teachers used it more for sticking problem kids next to her. Beatriz embraced her smarts – and the dourness that came with them – but she resented her role in evening others’ keels. This year, Mrs. Hubersentenced Beatriz to Jarvis Jordan, a dishwater blond boy with foster parents and anger issues.

“What’s wrong with everyone?” Jarvis asked, doodling lines on yet another pink eraser. The week before, Mrs. Huber scolded him in front of everyone for drawing swastikas on them; he now seemed at a loss for what to doodle beyond lines. Together, he and Beatriz surveyed the rows of flawlessly gelled braids and lustrous ponytails of the boys and girls ahead of them. Unlike Jarvis and his sister –  their heads both freshly shorn – lice had no chance with these kids.

“Everyone looks sad,” he continued.

“I guess?” Beatriz offered. She was not good at reading people’s backs. Or faces.

The bell rang. Mrs. Huber pulled the door closed. Saying nothing, she pulled up a chair at the front. Her outfit for the day featured a linen vest, jeans, and Keds. She tried to tuck her feet under her legs but settled for crossing them.  

“Schnikies,” Jarvis whispered.

“I know,” Beatriz murmured. “She’s doing her Linda Ellerbee thing.”

Mrs. Huber waited until everyone was quiet and captive before speaking.

“Class – I want to talk with you about what happened this weekend. Does anyone know?”

Beatriz tried to recall the weekend. She remembered reading more about Bigfoot, playing in some slush, then watching the first half of a boxing match with her father. She should have gone to catechism but had successfully feigned a stomachache. An average weekend, overall. She did not know what Mrs. Huber was getting at.

“SELENA DIED,” the class cried. 

“That’s right,” Mrs. Huber said. “And I know she meant a lot to a lot of you.”

The braids and ponytails gleamed blue-black as they nodded solemnly.

“I’ve never heard of her,” Jarvis blurted.

The chairs screeched as every braid and ponytail whipped around to stare daggers at Jarvis. He stared straight ahead, frozen except for his hand. It sank the pencil deep into the eraser. Beatriz knew. She had only a few moments before his jugular popped. So words just started coming out of her mouth.

“I know who Selena is. Was,” Beatriz uttered. “But I don’t like her music. I heard she doesn’t even speak Spanish in real life. Didn’t, I mean.”

Students gasped. Mrs. Huber tried to reel the class back in.

“Beatriz, you are certainly entitled to your opinion, but – “

“SELENA IS GOING TO COME BACK AT NIGHT AND HAUNT YOU FOR HATING HER, BEATRIZ,” Lupe yelled.

Beatriz’s little jaw dropped. After all, she was only nine, and this was her first curse. Mrs. Huber shooed Beatriz and Jarvis out into the hallway with some books so the rest of the class could talk freely and plan a little party to remember the Queen of Tejano Music. When they were finally allowed back in, it was time to practice multiplication with a game of Around the World. But instead of playing the students against each other, Mrs. Huber pitted the whole class against Beatriz. It was fairer this way, she said. Besides, Beatriz already knew her tables. And Jarvis needed all the help he could get. On their way out to recess, Mrs. Huber asked Beatriz to stay behind.

“I’m sorry I rolled my eyes during math,” Beatriz started. “It just happens.”

“Actually, that’s not it,” Mrs. Huber assured. “But I get the sense that you don’t have a lot in common with your classmates.”

Beatriz froze and stared at her desk. This was about Selena.

“I’m sorry I’m not more Mexican, Mrs. Huber. I can try harder.”

“No one is asking you to be anything, Beatriz. Also, I’m pretty sure you’re Guatemalan. Or Nicaraguan. Which one is it again?”

Beatriz lowered her head onto her desk and started to weep softly. She could hear classmates playing Red Rover outside. Jarvis was probably making sand castles and then destroying them with his feet.  

“Don’t cry. Why are you crying?” Mrs. Huber asked, exasperated. “I wanted to tell you about a special opportunity.”

“What’s that?” Beatriz asked through a hot blur of sniffles and tears.

“It’s an audition this weekend at the children’s theater. They’re doing ‘Charlotte’s Web.’ You might be more comfortable around those kids.”

Until that point, Beatrizhad not seen herself as uncomfortable, but she was interested to see how more comfortable might feel. She tucked the audition flyer into her briefcase, washed her face, then went outside.

To get Beatriz to the audition, Pilar had to follow a dump truck headed toward the Carson Canyon Hide Company. Beatriz spotted some cow legs peeking out from the top of the truck, splayed and stiff, not unlike her Barbies. As the two vehicles negotiated the bumpy railroad crossing, a tubful of brown liquid splashed from the truck’s tailgate onto the tracks.

“Ay, guácala,” Pilar cried. “How is that allowed?”

At the children’s theater – which was really just a giant studio with stage lights – the parents were guided toward a row of folding chairs while the children were herded into a circle on the floor. Beatriz worried that her mother might embarrass her with her effervescent foreignness and lack of stage mom know-how, but she calmed once the man with the Medusa shirt gravitated toward Pilar and introduced himself with a sweeping flourish. Even from a distance, she could tell the two were going to prattle on and on in Spanish. And if Medusa Shirt was here, that meant –

“Hey! You’re here!” a familiar voice said. It was the pretty girl from the other side of the fence.

“Maruca, right?”

“Shhh. My stage name is Amanda De Luca.”

“So your name is Maruca… De Luca?”

“No, it’s Maruca Matamoros, but the scout told my dad to change it.”

Beatriz had washed out of Scouts the year before for asking too many questions about Antarctica, D.B. Cooper, and lesbians. It also did not help that Beatriz openly hated singing, crafts, and volunteer projects that felt made up. Did the nursing home really need her off-key interpretation of “Mr. Sun”? And should she really be entrusted to clean the mountain lion’s enclosure if she is going to do it so clumsily? Again, more questions her troop leader did not want to answer.  

“The Scouts?” Beatriz asked, indignant. “Who cares what the Scouts think?”

Marucamanda shushed her and pointed to a slender woman in a faded black ensemble entering the circle.

“GOOD MORNING, YOUNG THESPIANS!” the woman projected with a bright British accent.

“GOOD MORNING, LATOYA!”

This woman did not look or sound like the LaToyas Beatriz knew. Those LaToyas drove Mercury Cougars and made fun of her for cowering on her babysitter’s stoop instead of playing with the loose Doberman that would sometimes bound down the street. Maybe LaToya was a stage name, too.

“TODAY WE ARE DOING TRYOUTS FOR E.B.WHITE’S CLASSIC BARNYARD TALE, ‘CHARLOTTE’S WEB’!” LaToya announced. “BUT I’M NOT GOING TO ASK ANY OF YOU TO READ FOR CHARLOTTE THE SPIDER. OR WILBUR THE PIG. OR TEMPLETON THE RAT. WE’LL SAVE THAT NONSENSE FOR CALLBACKS.”

“What are callbacks?”

“Shh.”

 “INSTEAD, I WANT TO SEE YOUR INNATE CREATIVITY AND EXPRESSION. I WANT TO SEE WHAT YOU THINK FARM LIFE LOOKS LIKE!”

With that, LaToya instructed the children to spread out and start pantomiming farm animals.

“WHEN I FLEW IN YESTERDAY, I SAW ALL YOUR SILOS AND IRRIGATION CONTRAPTIONS. I THOUGHT,

 As she spoke, LaToya assessed the pecking chickens and kicking donkeys around the room. When she came to Beatriz, she paused and quieted.

“I’m sorry, love, but you’ll have to help me with this one. Are you a scarecrow taking a nap?”

Beatriz opened her eyes but kept her arms and legs stiff.

“I’m a cow that I saw this morning. I died in the feedlot and now I’ll be leather.”

LaToya made a little “hmm” sound before moving on.

“ALRIGHT, THAT’S ENOUGH ANIMALS FOR NOW! LET’S SEE SOME FARMWORK! WHAT KIND OF WORK MIGHT FERN AND AVERY DO? YOU SEE, I GREW UP IN A TOWN CALLED MANCHESTER. I DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT FARMS, SO YOU’LL HAVE TO TEACH ME!”

“I’m milking a cow!” Maruca announced.

“VERY GOOD, MISS DE LUCA.”

“I’m tassling corn!” a boy explained as he reached for the tops of invisible stalks.

“I DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS, CODY, BUT IT LOOKS VERY DIFFICULT!”

Beatriz looked around the room. Practically everyone was milking cows or shearing sheep or collecting eggs. She had never seen any of that in person. She took a moment. What could she remember and recreate? Eventually, a hoe took shape in her hands, and she started to work the heavy, loamless earth before her.

“Are we tilling something, dear?”

Beatriz was relieved that LaToya recognized her farm work and nodded.

“What are we tilling?”

“I’m thinning the betabel,” Beatriz whispered. In her mind, it was daybreak and still too early for regular voices.

“Betabel? What’s betabel?” LaToya asked.

“What she really means is sugar beets,” Cody interrupted. “But Fern and Avery wouldn’t thin beets. That’s for mojados.”

The hoe disappeared and the hands that made them became tiny fists.

“You’re not supposed to call them that.”

“Sorry,” Cody replied with a smirk. “That is work for, how do you say? Mojados.

Beatriz had never met another child that was so glib yet so mean. She looked to Maruca for help, but Maruca stared back plaintively as she brushed a make-believe pony, saying nothing. LaToya, meanwhile, was lost in thought.

“Mo- mo-hah-dohs.” LaToya played with the word like a dog sampling gum. “Are those like mojitos? Because I do hope to try one while I’m here.”

“No, not quite,” Beatriz sighed before exiting the theater. Pilar followed, smiling and apologizing on her way out.

“You’ll do better next time, mija,” Pilar reasoned. “Those kids were more prepared. You didn’t have headshots or anything with you today. Not like Maruca. And her father. Dios mio. He even had a demo tape for that girl. But it’s OK.”

But it was not OK, Beatriz thought. It was supposed to be more comfortable here.

At dinner that night, Beatriz was quiet as her parents served themselves sauerkraut, bratwurst, and corn tortillas. Pilar liked to call this combination a “mixta” but Beatriz knew it was just leftovers from the week.

“What’s with the long face?” her father asked.

“She walked out of the audition,” Pilar explained. “It was a lot for her.”

“It wasn’t that!” Beatriz whined. She smushed her bratwurst into little crumbs before speaking again.

“Dad, can I go to Lake Lucy?”

Her father stopped chewing and glared at her.

“Why?” he asked. “Where is this coming from?”

“It’s just that I don’t fit in with the kids at school,” Beatriz began. “And I could probably fit in with the kids at the theater better if I went to Lake Lucy like Maruca Matamoros. I mean, Amanda De Luca.”

Her father looked to Pilar for context.

“Maruca is another little girl whose dad puts her in pageants and commercials.”

Her father put his fork down with a clank.

“Your mother is an educator in her home country, Beatriz.”

Beatriz braced herself for more lecturing.

“And your mother did not brave a civil war just for you to end up in a dinky country school that can’t even handle a kid in a wheelchair when there’s perfectly good public schools here in town.”

Always with the civil war, Beatriz thought. And the handicapped.

“And this Maruca girl – does she live in the country?”

“No,” Beatriz answered sheepishly.

“So you know what that means, right?”

“No,” Beatriz and Pilar replied in unison.

“What it means – my beautiful and intelligent brown daughter – is that Maruca isn’t going to Lake Lucy because she lives in the boonies and needs to sleep late during calving season.” He paused. Beatriz could not tell if he was holding back tears. “No. Maruca’s parents put her in that school because they wanted to ‘protect’ her from ‘certain elements.’”

Beatriz wanted to play dumb, but this stung. She felt like throwing up.

“So, they don’t want Maruca around kids like Robin?”

“No.”

“Or Jarvis?”

“The little white boy that got lice? Especially kids like Jarvis.”

“What about me?”

Her father pursed his lips and wiped something from his eye.

“Can people even do that?” Pilar interrupted after a beat, surprised.

“It’s kind of why Lake Lucy even exists.”

When Monday rolled around, Beatriz did not say anything when Robin came over for Oreos, stubby pigtails, and a ride to school. The Selena Quintanilla Memorial Snack Break was today, so Pilar sent Beatriz off with a tub of refried black beans specially crafted for the occasion. Beatriz knew everyone else ate pinto beans at home, but she was ready for the discomfort of bringing different beans. 

When Jarvis noticed Beatriz trying to juggle beans in addition to her briefcase and viola, he ran to help. And instead of racing for the doors, Robin walked with them.

“I thought you didn’t like Selena,” Jarvis commented, peeking at the beans.  

“I don’t. But I also don’t want her ghost haunting me.”

“Fair enough.”

On their way toward the schoolyard, the children passed Maruca’s place. Her Chihuahua stuck its head through some curtains and barked at them. From its perch in the picture window, the little dog studied them, barked once more, then disappeared back into the house.

 

1. What is the author trying to say about class, race, and privilege by juxtaposing the whimsy of “Charlotte’s Web” against the harsher agricultural and industrial imagery of Beatriz’s neighborhood?

2. Where were you when Selena Quintanilla was assassinated, and what does your level of awareness at the time say about the spaces you occupied (or didn’t)?

3. What ambitions and challenges do Robin, Jarvis, and Maruca embody?

4. Beatriz’s father takes issue with Class I School Districts, or schools putatively designed to educate students who resided in the country but that also have been used by families within city limits wishing to shield their children from the problems perceived to arise in larger, more diverse schools. What has been gained and what is lost by keeping these kinds of schools open?  

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Locations

After School Programs

  • Sherman Elementary School

    5618 N 14th Ave.
    Omaha, NE 68110

  • Lewis and Clark Middle School

    6901 Burt St.
    Omaha, NE 68132

  • Lothrop Magnet Elementary

    3300 N. 22nd St.
    Omaha, NE 68110

  • Campbell Elementary School

    2200 Dodge St.
    Lincoln, NE 68521

  • Lincoln High School

    2229 J St.
    Lincoln, NE 68510

  • Lincoln Northeast High School

    2635 N. 63rd St.
    Lincoln, NE 68507